Friday, December 19, 2014

Garrett Caples / Wittgenstein, a Memoir

Photo by Ian Crawford
Wittgenstein, a Memoir
How a teacher of philosophy turned one writer into a poet
By Garrett Caples

I came to poetry fairly late; that is, I was probably a senior in college before I could read it with anything like enthusiasm. This was a direct result of studying Wittgenstein with James Guetti, an eccentric, disgruntled professor of English at Rutgers University. Jim’s passions seemed to be gambling (horses, cards, dice), fishing, writing, and drinking. (A former football player at Amherst College, he also loved sports, but you didn’t bet on sports, because that was unsportsmanlike.) Yet somewhere along the way—after 1980, to judge by his published work—he added Wittgenstein to the mix of his obsessions, culminating in his 1993 book Wittgenstein and the Grammar of Literary Experience, whose publication fortunately coincided with the period during which I studied with him. Would I have become a poet without encountering this man and, through him, Wittgenstein? I’m inclined to say no.

Wittgenstein, of course, wrote very little about literature and even less about poetry. His efforts were principally directed toward clearing up philosophical dilemmas brought about by linguistic confusions. Most often, these confusions result from misleading analogies between different meanings of the same word. This conviction is so strong throughout his later work it compels him to devote much attention to the word “meaning.” His most famous remark on the subject occurs in Philosophical Investigations:
For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.
            And the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer.
The second half of this remark is misleading out of context, for the overall thrust of Wittgenstein’s discussion in this portion of the Investigations is against the picture of meaning as primarily a matter of names and things. Implicit here is a critique of Saussurean linguistics in making the signifier/signified model the paradigm of meaning. He’s not suggesting such a model is never an appropriate explanation of meaning, but rather that it only sometimes is. Naming is only one way we use words.

But as Guetti points out in relation to the first half of the remark quoted above, Wittgenstein’s sense of “use in the language” is more active than simply equating a name with its bearer:
It will soon become clear that “use” for Wittgenstein is a quite restrictive concept: it is “use in” specific verbal situations and exchanges and sequences, and “use” to do or to achieve something, “use” that always has consequences. It is this practical and purposive “use in the language” that becomes more and more unquestionably, as his arguments develop, the measure of meaning.
            But that observation still does not communicate the strength and even the severity of Wittgenstein’s formulation. For if “use in the language” is not, as we might initially have supposed, “all sorts of things,” then a great deal of verbal behavior—all such behavior, for example, that seems purposeless or inconsequential or, in Wittgenstein’s terms, “idling”—cannot be considered “meaningful.”
“The consequences of this exclusion,” Guetti continues, “are enormous for how we think about language, and especially for how we conceive linguistic process in literary studies.” Certainly they were for me. What Guetti writes above seems very simple, but in the context of literary studies—where interpretation of “meaning,” however defined or ill-defined, remains the prime directive—it is difficult to conceive of a more radical proposition. For it is tantamount to saying, among other things, that works of literature have no meaning; that is, the “meaning” we speak of in literature is different in kind from the meaning of a word or a sentence in the context of a purposeful, real-world exchange. In the latter, the use of words has consequences, in that it gives rise to action, whereas in literature—even literature that seeks to inspire readers to political action—words lack direct application. When we speak of “meaning” in relation to literature, we quite often mean something like “significance” or “point,” but when we speak of, say, the meaning of a line of poetry, or a phrase within a line, we mean something more like interpretation or paraphrase. And this is where confusion is liable to arise, for we can also interpret or paraphrase a meaningful expression. But the difference remains, for, absent a need for clarification, we can use a meaningful expression as is, and there are “measures of meaning” with such expressions—actions, consequences—that literature lacks.

One caveat: I should be clear that Wittgenstein doesn’t purport to have discovered the essence of meaning in any phenomenological sense. Philosophy for Wittgenstein at this point is dealing with words, not things. Yet too, he isn’t claiming to have found thereal meaning of “meaning.” Rather, he’s restricting the term for philosophical use. The active and purposeful sense of meaning is only one of the ways we use this word, and other ways of using the word aren’t incorrect. But these other uses are, again, different in kind from purposeful use, and the restriction of the word “meaning” to this latter sense is simply to avoid confusion with them.

Nonetheless, particularly in relation to poetry, Guetti’s remark struck me with the force of a revelation. Indeed, at the time, I probably did take it as something more like a phenomenological statement. But no matter: the idea of poetry as meaningless proved to be the key that unlocked the seemingly impenetrable mystery of the art. Previously, I felt “outside” of poetry; it seemed so full of meaning, but how, as a reader, could you know if you got this meaning, and how, as a writer, did you put it there? What Jim did for me was turn the problem not so much on its head as inside out. For where literary criticism tends to speak of meaning in poetry as internal, something to be “unpacked,” in Jim’s classes the poem was empty, its words reaching out to possible meanings, much as Wittgenstein writes in Philosophical Investigations during a series of remarks on “understanding”:
Hearing a word in a particular sense. How queer that there should be such a thing!
             Phrased like this, emphasized like this, heard in this way, this sentence is the first of a series in which a transition is made to thesesentences, pictures, actions.
This sounds very much like what occurs when you interpret the meaning of a line of poetry. You make a transition not to “actions,” as Jim pointed out, but definitely to “sentences” and “pictures” against whose backdrop a line of poetry might seem to take on a certain meaning. This is sometimes instructive and interesting to do, but at the same time it leads you away from the poem to other language that is not the poem. If you abandon the search for meaning, however, you’re more likely to stay with the poem, and this is the only way, finally, to learn how to understand poetry. And to “understand,” in the case of a poem, is not the same as to interpret its meaning, as Wittgenstein writes in one of his too-few remarks directly touching on poetry:
We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other. (Any more than one musical theme can be replaced by another.)
             In the one case the thought in the sentence is something common to different sentences; in the other, something that is only expressed by these words in these positions. (Understanding a poem.)
To be sure, this remark is not limited to poetry; Wittgenstein is talking about understanding sentences generally. “Understanding a poem” here exemplifies those things we understand about sentences that specifically aren’t meanings of words, our comprehension of intonations and structures. Hence the analogy with a musical theme, which is all tones and structures without semantic values. The problem here is that our understanding of musical themes is difficult to articulate, precisely because meaning is not involved. “What is it all about?” Wittgenstein asks of a musical theme. “I should not be able to say. In order to ‘explain’ I could only compare it with something else that has the same rhythm (I mean the same pattern).”  

One of Guetti’s strokes of genius was to link this aspect of Wittgenstein’s thought to the poetics of a writer who could be no more out of fashion in contemporary considerations of poetry: Robert Frost. In a letter to his friend John T. Bartlett, Frost writes:
A sentence is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung.
             You may string words together without a sentence-sound to string them on just as you may tie clothes together by the sleeves and stretch them without a clothes line between two trees, but—it is bad for the clothes….
             The sentence-sounds are very definite entities…. They are as definite as words….
             They are apprehended by the ear…. The most original writer only catches them fresh from talk, where they grow spontaneously.
It seems to me, as it did to Jim, who quotes this passage at even greater length in his book, that Frost is speaking of the very thing Wittgenstein grapples with in his remarks on understanding sentences. When I consider now that Frost wrote this in 1914, as Wittgenstein was just beginning his pre-Tractatus manuscript Notes on Logic, it kinda blows my mind. As it was, Jim’s juxtaposition of Frost’s “sentence-sounds” with Wittgenstein turned my head around, not simply about poetry but about writing, period. When I began to write “compositions,” as they were characterized in third grade, I learned you didn’t write the way you spoke, and this is both true—think of how “nonwritten” a transcript of conversation reads—and suitable advice for an eight-year-old writer. At a certain point, however, it is false, and bad advice. Writing is not speech, but both use sentences, and thus sentence-sounds—which is to say that written sentences need to be sayable, not merely to be elegant or effective but simply to be understood. Sentence-sounds, in other words, aren’t meaning but are intimately bound up with our understanding of sentences.

In terms of poetry, what I gleaned from this juxtaposition of ideas was to follow the sentence over the line. The line had me psyched out. With a poet of rhyme and meter like Frost, the line can bully your mind into blank incomprehension, whereas his game is to play his sentences against his lines’ almost brutal regularity. With unrhymed poems of variable meter, the line retained for me an aura as a unit that it often doesn’t merit. I was looking for reasons where there were none; if a line or a line break is noteworthy, it will declare itself, but otherwise, it’s not worth worrying about. Following sentences, moreover, was never a problem for me, not since learning to diagram them in fifth grade under the perpetually furious tutelage of an Irish Catholic nun named Sister Timothy. Reading poetry was suddenly easy; I had the grammatical chops, and Frost’s concept of sentence-sounds attuned me to those spoken intonations that animated the grammar. And the meaninglessness of poetry had eliminated the intimidation factor, for instead of approaching it with the forlorn hope that I could access its meaning, I let the poem come to me. It’s not for me to figure out a poem’s meaning but rather for the poem to convince me it has one. Or not, because I don’t demand that it have a meaning. I assume the poem is meaningless unless it convinces me otherwise. This is a far preferable state of affairs.
Jim Guetti died of lung cancer in early 2007, several months shy of his 70th birthday. In a memoir he self-published on iUniverse in 2005 called Silver Kings, he reveals that a cancer specialist saw an ambiguous mark on an X-ray of his lungs and wanted to perform exploratory surgery, but Jim refused. He’d calculated the odds of the occurrence of the rare type of tumor the doctor thought could be there against the odds of dying during surgery and decided he didn’t like them. Considering he’d already survived colon cancer before I met him, I was shocked by this decision, although, at the same time, it was very much him, the gambler. I didn’t hear about his death until a couple of years afterward. We weren’t close and had fallen out of touch. The last time we’d spoken, I’d called him to get his address to mail him my first book of poems, probably around 2000. I was curious to see what he’d think of it, if he’d recognize any of his teaching in it, but I never heard back from him. I figured that meant he didn’t like the poems, which didn’t surprise me, as I knew what I was writing was pretty distant from the poetry he enjoyed, though it occurred to me after reading Silver Kingsthat he may have been dealing with the cancer by then and was too busy trying to stay alive. I’d wanted him to see the book because I felt like my whole process of becoming a poet began by reading Wittgenstein with him. Until recently, I was under the impression I didn’t actually start writing poetry until 1994, after I moved to California to enroll in the graduate English program at UC Berkeley. But not long after readingSilver Kings, I discovered a notebook filled with poems from my senior year at Rutgers. Not good poems, and few complete ones, but it seems like I started trying out things based on what I was learning in Jim’s classes fairly immediately.

Jim had vast reservoirs of bitterness. Though he’d had 30-odd years as a full professor at a major research university and written three books of criticism—he’s still sometimes cited in studies of Melville, Conrad, Faulkner, Chandler, and, indeed, Wittgenstein—he felt his career hadn’t gone the way he wanted. He didn’t like the way literary studies had gone. His one bid for literary glory—a novel about gambling calledAction (Dial, 1972) that still has a following among connoisseurs of the genre—was, he claimed, ripped off and made into a film called The Gambler (1974) starring James Caan. I can’t say whether or not this is true, but how many stories about gambling English professors who end up owing money to the mob are out there? Caan even looks rather like Jim does in his author photo for Action. (Jim was doubly offended because the film replaces horse racing with college basketball and, again, betting on sports was unsportsmanlike.) Still, despite his bitterness, he retained his enthusiasm for teaching. A surprising amount of Silver Kings is devoted to teaching, not so much about his own endeavors in the classroom as about those significant encounters in his life with teachers and coaches who helped him discover and develop abilities he hadn’t been aware he possessed. In the acknowledgments to Wittgenstein and the Grammar of Literary Experience, Jim thanks two of his own professors at Amherst—Theodore Baird and Armour Craig—for their role in his development as a thinker and a writer, saying, “The best teaching lasts.” It does.
Excerpted from Retrievals, copyright 2014 by Garrett Caples. Reprinted with permission of the author and Wave Books.
Originally Published: October 29, 2014



Friday, December 12, 2014

Tobias Hill / I was so hungry to write poetry

Tobias Hill: 'During the last novel, it was so difficult that I just caved in because I was so hungry to write poetry'


The award-winning writer tells Christina Patterson why his latest novel is set in a bustling (London) market and how he's been trying not to write about the capital for years
  • Christina Patterson
    • The Guardian

Tobias Hill
'With a novel you’re constantly walking into the unknown' … Tobias Hill. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian
Tobias Hill doesn't have a mobile phone. He doesn't do Twitter, and he doesn't do Facebook, and he doesn't text because, without a phone, he can't. He has just got a website. It has, he explains, taken four years to get it up. "I'm not a technophobe," he says. "I think it's all rather incredible. But I think the business of the writer is to write." And write he has. Now aged 43 he is a prizewinning and critically acclaimed author of five novels, four volumes of poetry, a short story collection and a children's book.
  1. What Was Promised
  2. by Tobias Hill

He has suggested we meet at Chapel Market, just off Islington's Upper Street in London where there's one stall selling artisan bread and cakes, but mostly the stalls are selling what markets nearly always sell: cheap bags and clothes, fruit and veg, cleaning products, make-up and tat. And a Manze's Eel Pie and Mash Shop.
Hill this place because his new novel, What Was Promised, has a lot to do with markets, and because he once worked in this particular one. "It was the best holiday job I ever had," he tells me. "We'd come out here bright and early and sell our jogging bottoms and Batman T-shirts."
What Was Promised starts off in Columbia Road, of market fame, in 1948. Spanning 40 years, it tells the story of three families brought to the East End by the war. There's Solly Lazarus, the Jewish watchmaker from Danzig, and his beautiful wife, Dora. There's Clarence Malcolm, the "Banana King" from Jamaica, his wife, Bernadette, and Sidney, their son. And there's Michael and Mary Lockhart, originally from Birmingham, who both know not to ask too many questions about the errands Michael's paid to run. Their daughters, Iris and Floss, play with Sidney and with a boy who thinks he must be an orphan, and who says his name is "Pond".
All immigrants of a kind, the characters have to learn, as Clarence puts it, to live on their "wits alone". They live in Columbia Buildings, condemned by the council as a slum. As they struggle to make ends meet, their lives and stories intertwine, first in good ways and then in a terrible way that will change nearly all their lives. The effects of this are still being felt in 1988 when the novel ends.
"Markets are precious," says Hill, "and they're so easily destroyed. And they're not very English, which is why when people got off the boats in 1948, they would see this little slice of life, which could be anywhere. I wanted to get the sense of that and how that felt." Hill, who has been described by this paper as "contemporary literature's renaissance man", seems as comfortable with a 500-page novel as a short story or a poem. He brings his poet's eye for precision to the teeming life of the market. He talks, for example, about air that "tastes of old batteries", rain that "hardens down into the byways", "crizzling down the windows", and about a face "sunken as old meat". But his main theme isn't actually the market but the "collisions" the city throws up. The novel, like his last poetry collection, Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow, has Emerson's "cities give us collision" as its epigraph. "When people get exhausted by the city and want to escape," he says, "it's the collisions they want to get away from. I have," he adds, "been trying not to write about London for years."
If he's been trying, he hasn't been trying all that hard. In his first collection of short stories, Skin, which won the 1998 PEN/Macmillan award for fiction, he wrote partly about Japan, where he'd been living, but also about London Zoo. His first novel, Underground, published in 1999, as you might guess from the title, is largely set on the underground: and not just in the passages and tunnels that people still use. His next, The Love of Stones, switches between Victorian and contemporary London, as well as Tokyo and Istanbul. The Cryptographer, about a love affair between a tax inspector and "the world's first quadrillionaire" is set in the London of the future. Only his fourth novel The Hidden, published five years ago, is set largely outside London, in Greece.
His first poetry collection, Year of the Dog, which won him an Eric Gregory award in 1995, was, like Skin, dominated by images of Japan. His second, Midnight in the City of Clocks, moves between London and Japan. His third, Zoo, is nearly all about London, and was published while he was poet in residence at London Zoo. Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow, published in 2006, is pretty much a love song to the city. "London," he says, in the poem "November", "– there's a rhythm to the name, its ending an echo of its beginning, as if London were the name for somewhere full to the brim with its own echoes".
Rhythm is, of course, as central to prose as to poetry, but there's also the rhythm of structure, and plot. Hill's previous four novels could probably be described as "intellectual thrillers": in Underground, the central character is trying to track down the person who's pushing women under trains; in The Love of Stones, she's on a hunt for a missing jewel; in The Cryptographer she's investigating an electronic currency that seems to have been protected by an unbreakable code; and in The Hidden a team of archeologists hide, and eventually reveal, a terrible secret.
"Judgments and secrets are what make a good novel," he says, when I point out the pattern. But you couldn't describe his latest novel as a thriller. Was he trying to get away from the genre? "That," he says carefully, "might be true. People have expectations of what you are as a writer. And writers, on the whole, don't like to be classified. About five years ago, I decided I wanted to write a novel about people, rather than ideas."
What Was Promised is certainly a novel about people, and the people in it are much more powerfully depicted than the characters he's given us before. As a novelist Hill has been praised for "the sort of brilliance that leaves you short of breath" and described by AS Byatt as "one of the two or three most original and interesting young novelists working in Britain today". Before he was picked in 2004 by the Poetry Book Society as a Next Generation Poet, and by the Sunday Times as a Young Writer of the Year, he was nominated by the TLS as one of the Best Young Writers in Britain. But he hasn't always been praised for his characterisation. Penelope Lively said that Katharine, the central character in The Love of Stones, "remained a shadowy creature". Sam Leith described Casimir, in Underground, as "a sort of ambulant potato". Did such comments play a part in his decision to write a novel about people?
"Absolutely!" says Hill. "They're quite right. My strong suits, coming from poetry, will naturally be description, which I love doing. It comes very easily, and possibly structure, up to a point. My weaker suits are character and dialogue, and that's why I've invested four years in this." And what, I ask, about plot? Presumably, with all those thrillers, he had to do some meticulous plotting in advance? Hill shakes his head. "I don't really plot, no. Do you know that lovely Ursula Le Guin book about writing? She talked about her novels having rhythms not like poetry, but huge rhythms, like mountain ranges – and that comes out of not knowing too much. When the plot grows out of the character, that's much harder, because you're constantly gardening, and trying to work out which bit needs to be trimmed."
In the past, Hill has said that he can't write poems and novels at the same time. Now, he does both. "During the last novel," he says, "it was so difficult that halfway through I just caved in, because I was so hungry to write poetry. It helped when I came back to the novel as well." And how different is the process? "I think," he replies, after a pause, "the poem and the short story have an affinity, in that you know it's going to be over soon. With a novel, there is no hurrying it. You're constantly walking into the unknown."
What Was Promised is about outsiders, but then nearly all Tobias Hill's work is about outsiders. His own family is a mixture of German-Jewish and British. His mother's German parents moved to Welwyn Garden City because "they thought in a new town no one would have any roots". His father's family were "goldsmiths and gunmakers and workhouse masters". One of his relatives, he says, "was a dodgy, irascible travelling land surveyor who once chased off an armed sailor with a shotgun and ended up going mad with syphilis".
Hill grew up in a "bookish household" in Kentish Town, north London, with a journalist father who made "intricate model boats" and wrote "rather good poetry" and a graphic designer mother who did "rather good pictures" and sang. As a child, he was obsessed with butterflies, gemstones and dinosaurs. His grandmother, he says, "was an avid collector of things". He hated school – Hampstead school, where Zadie Smith was also a pupil – but he started writing poems as a child, and was published by the time he was 20. Two years later, he went to live for a couple of years in Japan ("like another version of Britain. There's the same introspection, the same ritualistic tendencies, and tea.") When he returned to London, he had decided he was going to be a writer. "I came back with the idea that I would give it a real go, and move back into my old bedroom. I clomped round the house annoying my parents until they finally threw me out."
He met his wife, Hannah, at his father's memorial service when he was 26. In his poem "October", he writes: "I will never have seen enough of you." Now they have 14-month-old Kit. Hill teaches creative writing one day a week, but the rest of the time he writes. It sounds pretty idyllic. No wonder he writes in his poem "November", "all that brilliance was ours".
Hill is warm and polite, yet his work has often been described as clever but cool. "I know what they mean," he says. "I see people occasionally saying the same thing about Kazuo Ishiguro. What I feel about Ishiguro is that he's an intensely emotional writer, and either you get that or you don't. Obviously, I want people to get something out of this novel. I don't," he says, "want them to say I'm cold."



Monday, December 1, 2014

Charles Bukowski / My Cats

Charles Bukowski
My Cats
by Charles Bukowski

I know. I know they are limited,
have different
needs andconcerns. but I watch and learn from them.
I like the little they know,
which is so much.
they complain but never
worry,
they walk with a surprising dignity.
they sleep with a direct simplicity that
humans just can’t understand.
their eyes are more
beautiful than our eyes.
and they can sleep twenty hours
a day without hesitation or remorse.
when I am feelinglow
all I have to do is
watch my cats
and my courage returns.
I study these creatures.
they are my teachers.